May 17, 2014

The First Signs of Alzheimer’s Disease Are Not Always Predictable

As I traveled more deeply into the Alzheimer’s world, I learned that facing the truth can be difficult but it lead to understanding and with understanding comes empowerment, compassion and the will to move forward.

Nancy Wurtzel
Alzheimer's Reading Room

Nancy Wurtzel
My mom, who died late last year from Alzheimer’s disease, began to show the first signs of memory loss about a decade ago.

During these very early stage of the disease, I didn't fully comprehend what was happening.

I already has some experience with Alzheimer’s, since my father had the disease during the final six years of his life. However, unlike my dad, whose cognitive loss was obvious to everyone, Mom didn’t have what is commonly recognized as classic AD symptoms.


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For instance, Mom’s short-term memory seemed strong. She wasn’t repeating herself or asking the same questions over-and-over-and over. She could still cook, care for herself and basically navigate life. And, when it came to activities like card games, Mom was still the master, handily winning most games.

Yet, in retrospect, I see clearly that my mom was showing subtle personality changes. Changes that, at the time, I attributed to normal signs of aging.

On one extended trip home, I noted Mom was becoming increasingly obsessive about certain issues.

During this visit, I took Mom to see her eye doctor. We went back-and-forth on what time we needed to depart with Mom insisting on leaving nearly an hour before her exam time. I finally gave in, but since the eye doctor was located only a few miles from her home, this meant we sat in the waiting room for a very long time.

Luckily, I had brought a book but Mom refused offers of magazines or coffee. Instead, she checked her watch constantly, peering at the time, using her finger to tap the watch face and then dramatically rolling her eyes. It was both comical and irritating.

When I reminded Mom several times that she was the one who insisted on being an hour early, she avoided eye contact and acted as though I wasn't even talking.

When we finally saw the doctor and were on our way out, the receptionist informed us that she would bill the insurance company and send us an invoice for the amount they would not cover. I was greatly relieved, because money had also become a huge, insurmountable issue.

In fact, Mom had begun complained bitterly about spending even the smallest amounts of money — the $10 weekly fee to clean her apartment, the 35 pennies she lost playing bingo, the cost of washing her car and the price of prescriptions.

I had come to dread Mom’s medical prescriptions.

She’d had more than one melt-down at the pharmacy, not wanting to pay for medications that her doctor had ordered. Mom kept telling the pharmacist that she didn’t want the medication but that her doctor said she had to take it. However, she believed her doctor should be the one paying for it since it was his idea.

The pharmacy staff was patient with her, but I could see she was really testing their limits.

My own limits were also being tested. While I simply wanted to return home and believe that everything was okay, I could no longer do so. Even though my mother was not exhibiting the same symptoms as my father, I had to admit her personality changes and obsessive behaviors were indeed part of a much larger cognitive problem.

This was certainly depressing. Yet, it was also a positive turning point in my care-giving journey.

As I traveled more deeply into the Alzheimer’s world, I learned that facing the truth can be difficult but it lead to understanding and with understanding comes empowerment, compassion and the will to move forward.

Nancy Wurtzel
Nancy Wurtzel writes Dating Dementia -- a slightly twisted and humorous blog -- about making big changes at midlife. Read about Nancy's journey through divorce, restarting a career, empty nest challenges, moving home, baby boomer issues and caring for an aging parent with Alzheimer’s disease. Visit Dating Dementia.

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